by Matt Dawson
“If you have a curiosity about life and a curiosity about how things really work, it is great to get to the bottom of it,” says Kate McClymont, one of the country’s most renowned investigative reporters.
Earlier in the day, she was in the NSW Supreme Court to hear a procedural ruling about a witness called to appear in the murder trial against wealthy property developer Ron Medich. Ms McClymont, a journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald, has been hot on the case since before the shooting of underworld figure Michael McGurk in the driveway of his Cremorne home on 3 September 2009.
“When you are in the middle of a really intense story, it is all consuming. You work 18 hours a day; you get up in the morning, you are thinking about it, you wake up at night, you are thinking about it. It just completely takes over your life,” she says.
Ms McClymont (pictured) grew up on a farm in Orange, attending the local high school before going to boarding school at Frensham in the Southern Highlands. She started out her professional life at a publishing company, hoping to pursue her great love of literature. But life as a junior staffer in a publishing house was not all it was cut out to be.
“I hated every minute of it. It was completely boring,” she says.
Assigned the task of writing an encyclopaedia, she made it up to the letter ‘C’ before resigning from the company. But not before leaving a parting test for the sub-editors. Her name found its way into the encyclopaedia under the letter ‘N’, in the section for Nobel Prize winners.
“When I later picked up a copy in a bookshop, I noticed that sadly someone had removed that entry,” she says.
It was not until her early 20s that Ms McClymont decided that she wanted to become a journalist. One of her first forays into the world of investigation came as a junior reporter on the ABC’s Four Corners program, where she worked for two years in the late 1980s. The team included high calibre journalists such as Paul Barry, Chris Masters and Mark Colvin.
On 11 May 1987, Four Corners broadcast The Moonlight State, exposing systematic corruption within the Queensland Police. The Judicial Inquiry that ensued ran for two years, resulting in two Queensland Ministers being sent to jail, a Police Commissioner being charged with corruption and the National Party being booted out of office for the first time in 32 years.
Mr Masters was the reporter in The Moonlight State. He worked for the ABC for 43 years, including 25 years with Four Corners.
“Kate shared that dramatic time with us and maybe it was then she saw just what journalism could achieve. The motto was simple: aim high and tell them what they didn’t know yesterday,” Mr Masters says.
In Ms McClymont’s line of work, threats to personal safety do arise and have disrupted her family life on several occasions. Her husband is a book publisher and her three children, two girls and one boy, are currently studying full time, two at university and one doing the HSC.
On 24 August 2002, Ms McClymont and her colleagues, Anne Davies and Brad Walter broke the story about NRL team, the Canterbury Bulldogs’ deliberate breaches of player salary cap. The Bulldogs were effectively thrown out of the competition for the season and fined $500,000, on the eve of the NRL Finals.
Tempers among diehard fans ran high and the Police advised Ms McClymont that her family would need to vacate their home. At the time, she was in the middle of filing a story and her husband, was hosting a work cocktail function.
Her family ended up staying one night at a budget motel on George Street, next to the Event Cinema complex. The nearby serviced apartments in Double Bay were not within budget, her employer Fairfax advised.
“The place was a complete dive. The next morning the children were excited when they thought they had found gold under the bed; it turned out to be bottle caps,” she says.
“My husband has been incredibly supportive. He understands the importance of my work and feels strongly that journalism is a just profession. There is no way I could do what I do without the absolute support of my family,” she says.
Bringing her talent for forensic research to bear, Ms McClymont has written extensively on the activities of a colourful cast of characters. Over the years she has followed the legal sagas of the likes of Eddie Obeid, Ron Medich, John Marsden QC and Michael Williamson.
“The Obeids, for instance; I have been following them now for almost 15 years. You always keep an eye on what they are up to and people always give you tips,” Ms McClymont says.
Mr Obeid won a defamation case against Ms McClymont and her employer, Fairfax, over an article published in August 2002. The story was co-written by Anne Davies. The court ordered a substantial damages payment. It was one of the most difficult moments in her career.
“I was absolutely devastated, I felt like a failure as a journalist,” Ms McClymont says.
For a long time, she believed that the verdict meant she could no longer pursue the Obeid story, describing it as “the worst thing that ever happened to me”.
“But you just have to get over that and move on,” Ms McClymont says.
Subsequent events prove it was a pyrrhic victory for Mr Obeid.
As a fellow journalist, Mr Masters knows what the life of a serial defendant is like. His involvement in the Moonlight State program netted him 13 years worth of litigation.
“Both Kate and I have experienced ‘death by a thousand courts’. Being a professional defendant and a witness can be very demoralising,” Mr Masters says.
“I never think of myself as being courageous. I just try to be thorough and do my job diligently. There definitely is a sense of personal satisfaction that comes from uncovering a good story, especially when people you are writing about are trying everything they can to stop it getting out,” she says.
Linton Besser, a fellow investigative reporter and 2010 Walkley Award winner, worked alongside Ms McClymont for seven years at the Sydney Morning Herald.
“Kate doesn’t mind dealing with the bad guys and isn’t afraid to pursue them. She has a wonderful sense of optimism and fun, no matter what the situation is. She is also hugely generous in sharing her methods and contacts with colleagues,” he says.
He says that to be successful, investigative reporters need to have an obsessive streak.
“You have to spend time reading a company’s annual report, not just the executive summary, but the whole thing, the appendices. Then you need to go back and read previous annual reports, forensically compare the data and look for discrepancies,” he says.
Back in 2002, after Ms McClymont got wind of suggestions that former Prime Minister, Paul Keating and his speechwriter and biographer, Don Watson had fallen over the publication of the latter’s book, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, she wrote a piece in SMH column, Sauce.
Mr Keating took umbrage at her article. In typical Keating style, he fired off a retort, musing on whether Ms McClymont was underemployed at Fairfax and suggesting that she had time to “sniff bike seats down at Darling Harbour” and complimented her ability to “smell subterranean odours”.
“I have never sniffed a bike seat in my life! I think it says more about him than it does about me,” she says.
Ms McClymont’s court reports have attracted a cult following among Sydney Morning Herald readers. She has the ability to add humour and point out the absurd. The various court proceedings against the five men accused of conspiring to murder Michael McGurk have offered rich pickings.
On 12 September 2013 she wrote:
“Bassal maintained that because he was doing “heavy drugs” when he gave the statements to police, he couldn’t remember anything. Asked if the only thing he could remember was his name, he agreed before adding, “And my birthday.” He also agreed he knew the precise day he was due to be released. “Everyone knows his date of release,” he said.
SMH, 12 September 2013.
On September 2013 she wrote:
“In committing Mr Medich, 65, to stand trial for the murder, magistrate Jan Stevenson said that it was striking how “grossly amateur” the murder was and that it lacked a “scintilla of professionalism”,
“I have always found the funny side to a story, no matter how serious. Humour has proven a good technique for getting people to share information with you, when they otherwise would not,” she says.
Her investigations into the activities of the Health Services Union took an interesting twist when a school parent got in touch to pass on some intelligence about HSU National President, Michael Williamson.
According to the source, it wasn’t so much that Mr Williamson had five children at private school, nor than he and his wife drove luxury Mercedes, or even that they travelled first class; the clincher according to the parent was that “they always outbid everyone at the school auction”.
“I thought, that is actually unusual for a union boss, so when I started looking I found that the union’s architect had also done all the renovation works for Mr Williamson’s house at Maroubra and his beach house,” she says.
A subsequent Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) registry search revealed that Mr Williamson owned a company that was quietly supplying IT services to the union and his financial interests were not disclosed in the HSU’s annual report.
“Once you start running things, more people start ringing to provide information and it actually develops a bit of a snowball effect,” Ms McClymont says.
According to her, it is a myth that investigative journalism is special or different.
“It just takes longer. You need more patience, more resources and more understanding from your bosses because not everything turns out. You might embark upon something and it is a failure. It is just daily reporting times 10 really,” she says.
Earlier this month, Ms McClymont won the Fairfax Woman of Influence Award. In making the presentation, Fairfax Chief Executive Greg Hywood described her as “a genuine giant of journalism in Australia”.
“She is deeply feared by both society’s underbelly crooks and even the crims who walk the corridors of power. And her dogged reporting has in many cases set or reset the public agenda by bringing wrongdoing to light,” Mr Hywood said.